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Fearless Problem Solving with Design Thinking

The world is ever changing and complex, and change is often accompanied by unexpected challenges. While change in any situation is inevitable, it’s important to have a plan to help address any issues that arise along the way.

One path forward through change is Design Thinking. Developed by David Kelley—the founder of design and innovation firm, IDEO—Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. So, how can the Design Thinking methodology be leveraged as a problem-solving tool? This post will share how Design Thinking can be used to define and understand a problem before working through how to achieve an optimal solution.

Why Design Thinking for Problem Solving
Design Thinking takes a unique approach to problem solving. Before jumping to solutions, it encourages slowing down and starting at the beginning and taking the time to really understand the end user and challenge.

Design Thinking encourages you to consider whether or not you are tackling the right problem—and taking it one step further, determining if the problem is even one worth solving.

Starting with Empathy
With Design Thinking, the first step is empathy.

As humans, we often hear a problem or concern and immediately want to fix it. But to gain better—and sometimes unexpected—outcomes, it’s important to first get to the root of the problem and hold off on solutioning until the problem is understood.

At KSMC, one of our core values is empathy because we appreciate the importance of starting with understanding people. Understanding the end user and letting that understanding drive to the heart of the issue at hand helps identify the root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms.

Understanding the Problem
By taking the time to better understand and define the problem that needs to be solved, new and innovative outcomes are more likely to result.

Start by asking yourself:

  • Who is involved?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • What needs to be addressed?

Framing the Problem
The next step is to frame the problem. Think of it this way: You have a puzzle and the puzzle has pieces that fit together. In traditional problem (and puzzle) solving, you immediately start putting those pieces together—often beginning with the border.

But imagine that you’ve never seen the image the puzzle is supposed to represent. Where do you begin? What if you don’t know how many pieces there are or how many people should help put it together? This is what it’s like to solve a problem without a clear understanding of the challenge.

By engaging stakeholders to gather additional information and perspectives, you’ll understand how others view the problem—which ultimately leads to a better understanding of the problem itself. Once you’ve determined who’s involved with the problem and what their needs are, you can begin to adequately define the problem.

Here are some questions to ask when framing the problem:

  1. Why is this a problem worth solving? Why does it matter? What happens if the problem is not addressed?
  2. What are the opportunities to address the problem or to initiate change?
  3. Who is involved? What are their roles? Who does this change benefit? Who is responsible for implementing the change?
  4. What is the current state of the challenge? What is the future state? What barriers (if any) to change exist?

At this point in the process, you’ll want to gather as many ideas as possible to truly understand all the different angles of the problem.

The “Five Whys” Method
The “Five Whys” is a great method to use when trying to define and understand the real problem. It allows you to get to the root cause of the issue or to understand it from an empathetic viewpoint and see the motivations behind the challenge or problem. It’s an easy way to get clarity.

  1. Pick an idea to explore further.
  2. Ask and answer the question “Why?” up to five times. Note: You may get to clarity in just three “Whys.” You want to repeat the question until you feel you have gotten to something concrete—something that aligns with the heart of the problem you are trying to solve.


  • This process is about asking questions to get to specifics so you can move deeper into discovery.
  • Ask “Why?” in context with a deeper meaning (i.e., “Why didn’t you get the project completed?” Then perhaps ask, “Why were resources a problem with this project?”).
  • This process can get messy as it uncovers buried emotions. Sometimes the emotions reveal the heart of the challenge, and sometimes they mask it. Either way, the answers provide necessary, additional understanding.

Defining the Problem
To truly begin defining the problem, use what you’ve learned about people and their needs to begin with a point of view (POV) or a statement that creates a clear understanding of the problem itself. This statement—developed by the insights you gained while framing the problem—will guide your movement toward ideation.

The “How might we…?” Method
A method many designers like to use is to propose, “How might we…?” Following, a group begins to fill in the blanks to frame and define a problem. For example: How might we _______ in order to _______ so our customers experience _______?

The “How might we…?” method might inform questions such as:

  • How might we use Design Thinking to guide and retain employees to fulfill career paths?
  • How might citizens renew government-required licenses quickly so they can get back to other work and life tasks?

At this point, you should know where it is you want to go. You know what the picture on your puzzle looks like.

Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them…” continues to be applicable today. Design Thinking enables us to come up with new ideas and new ways of developing services or products. By taking a human-centric approach to problems that arise, we are better equipped to to frame and define the problem, thus leading to better, more informed solutions.